Sunday, July 10, 2011

Disentangling Dichotomies, Querying Unities. Reflections on the annual conference of the Australian Anthropological Society



So, last week I was in Perth, WA attending an annual conference of the Australian Anthropological Society (AAS). This year the conference was jointly organised for the first time by the AAS with the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) and the Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand (ASAANZ).


The conference was held at the University of Western Australia. Since it’s a relatively long flight to Perth from Melbourne (it’s supposed to be four hours but seemed like transatlantic to me), I arrived Monday night before the conference started.

I didn’t see much of the city, as my existence over the 2.5 days consisted of moving to and from university, driving along the Swan River into the urbanistic wilderness of the UWA’s Crawley’s campus. It was the coldest week in Perth the locals could remember in years (and I was naively hoping to get away from Melbournian mid-winter misery for a few days). My hotel didn’t have heating and the thermometer was stuck at 16C (I hear that people staying in Trinity college were also cold, so I guess I didn’t miss out from not getting a room in Trinity after all). To sum up the ‘cold weather’ paragraph, it didn’t affect my impressions from the conference at all as nothing can suppress creativity and unbound exchange of ideas.

I was invited to present at the educational panel together with other 20+ papers featuring multi-faceted anthropological research in education, ranging from pre-schools, secondary education, VET sector and higher education (my paper was included in the latter one).

The topics covered (just to name a few) touched on perception and stigma attached to mothers of autistic children, domestification of ethnicity explored through studying the contents of the school lunch boxes, re/production of identities (of students, teachers, parents etc) within educational settings, comparative studies of alternative educational systems (e.g. those practised in Aboriginal societies) as opposed to the western model and the role of schools (agendas, (hidden) curriculum design) in nation-building.

The keynotes were delivered by Jean Comaroff on the first day and jointly by Anne Salmond and Alberto Gomes on the second one.

Comaroff spoke about ‘Global South’ and how Europe was ‘becoming more like Africa’. Personally, I found the second day keynotes more interesting (mostly because they were more relevant to my research interests). Salmond talked about the Treaty of Waitangi, explaining the nature of Maori land claims and Treaty’s interpretations coupled with Maori cosmologies. She touched on the current (ongoing) debate in Autearoa on 'who is Maori and who is not' (that is a battle over authenticity, specifically in relation to the Indigeneity) and criticizing the idea of ‘bounded’ culture viewed as something remaining unchanged, ‘pure’ and essentialised.
Gomes presented on his experiences conducting fieldwork in Malaysia and India and working together with Aboriginal activists in those countries. The question he kept asking is to what degree should we as anthropologists align ourselves with our collaborators and their agendas? Where do our activists’ identities end and scholars' identities begin? He talked about politisation of Indigeneity, specifically in relation to land rights and activism.

I was pleasantly surprised by a big number of Russian names in the conference collection of abstracts. There were Russian (and other former USSRS countries) colleagues from Moscow State University and Russian Academy of Sciences among others, dominating ‘Presentation of Indigenous Knowledges’ session.

Overall, the conference was about contesting dichotomous views and challenging perceived unities (which is reflected in the conference’s title) which is what anthropologists attempt to do.

Nowadays more than ever, anthropology is all about allowing others to teach us to think and see the world differently and reflect on our own bias and things we take for granted.


Photographs by the author (1. Conference banner, 2. View of the UWA campus, 3. Fragment of the mural image by Leonard French, entitled 'Emergence', 1976, displayed at the Berndt Museum)

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